Orville’s Dayton Friends

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

Orville Wright (middle left in the picture) had two influential friends in Dayton that helped shape his future as well as the future of aviation.

His friends, Edward A. Deeds (far left in picture) and Charles F. Kettering (far right in picture), had ties to the National Cash Register Company now known simply as the NCR Corporation. The NCR was a dominant presence in Dayton in the early 1900s. Deeds and Kettering were two of its most influential people, having prospered under the guidance of John H. Patterson the founder of the company.

The men left the NCR in 1914 to form their own company, known as the Dayton Engineering Laboratory Company (Delco), to produce the first self-starter for automobiles, an invention they worked on part-time in Deed’s barn behind his house.

Original Wright Company Leaves Dayton

Orville sold the original Wright Company in 1915, three years after Wilbur’s death. The Wright Company merged into the Wright-Martin Company and moved to New Jersey in 1917.

New Company Is Formed

That same year a new airplane company was formed in Dayton. Deeds and Kettering started the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in 1917. They didn’t know much about airplanes but they brought in their friend Orville Wright as a consulting engineer to help them.

The timing of the formation of the company was fortuitous as World War I came along shortly after its formation. The new company was awarded hefty contracts to produce 4,000 British De Havilland warplanes and 400 trainers for the war effort. It didn’t hurt that Deeds was commissioned a Colonel and appointed head of aircraft procurement of the U.S. Aircraft Production Board.

Orville was commissioned a major in the Aviation Section of the Signal Officer Reserve Corps and ordered to remain in Dayton to advise the engineers at Dayton-Wright.

One of the more interesting projects that Kettering and Orville worked on was a pilotless airplane called the “Bug” designed to deliver a 180-pound bomb. It was a predecessor of the German World War II buzz bomb. Fifty “Bugs” were delivered but never were used before the war ended.

On one occasion, the pilotless plane went out of control setting off a chase by 100 men in automobiles. The plane came down 21 miles from Dayton. When the chase party arrived, puzzled people at the site were searching for nonexistent the pilot.

By the end of war, Kettering had become an avid flyer. One of the first pilots trained by the Wrights taught Kettering how to fly.

As a flyer, Kettering provided two pieces of advice for novice pilots. First, he advised, “never to fly on days when the birds aren’t flying, as they have more experience in the matter.” Second, if you are lost in a fog bank, “throw out a monkey wrench. If it goes up, you are flying upside down.”

Establishment OF Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

Deeds, Kettering and Orville were involved in establishing what is today known as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 1916, Deeds and Kettering purchased land just north of downtown Dayton along the Great Miami River. There, they hoped with Orville’s help, to establish a flying field for training civilian pilots. They barely started clearing the field when the war came along. Deeds sold his interest to the land to Kettering after Deeds was commissioned a colonel and went to Washington.

Kettering in turn leased the land to the government and the government established the first military aviation research center, named McCook Field. It became known as the “Cradle of Aviation. Among other things the first free fall parachute was developed there as well as aerial photography.

In the early 1920s, the government threatened to move out of Dayton because McCook field was becoming too small and could not be expanded. Here again Deeds became involved and a committee was established to raise money to build a new airfield in another location around Dayton. Orville was consulted and the committee recommended a location east of town not far from Orville’s old flying field at Huffman Prairie. The committee raised $400,000 and purchased 5,000 acres of land, which it presented to the government for the token price of $2.00. The land became Wright Field, named for both Wilbur and Orville, and was dedicated in 1927.

Historical Parks Established

Deeds headed the committees that established two historical parks around Dayton – The Wright Brothers Memorial and Carillon Historical Park.

The Wright Brothers Memorial is located on a hill near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base overlooking Huffman Prairie, the Wrights’ flying field in Dayton after their success at Kitty Hawk. The memorial is made of marble quarried near Kitty Hawk, NC. It was dedicated on the anniversary of Orville’s 69th birthday on August 19, 1940.

Carillon Historical Park was established in 1942 as a gift of Deeds. The park’s prized possession is the restored 1905 Wright Flyer. It was this Flyer that the Wrights characterized as their first practical airplane. Orville provided guidance during the restoration.

Orville Dies Of A Heart Attack

The restored Flyer was dedicated in June 1950. Tragically, Orville didn’t live to see it. He had his first of two heart attacks on October 10, 1947, as he was running up the steps of the main NCR building to keep an appointment for a luncheon with Deeds. He was hurrying because he was uncharacteristically late.

On January 27, 1948, he had spent the morning going up and down steps fixing the door bell at his home, Hawthorn Hill. He had his second heart attack shortly after his arrival at his laboratory in downtown Dayton. He died in his sleep three days later in the hospital at the age of seventy-seven.

1903 Flyer Returned to America

Orville’s death created a temporary roadblock to transferring the 1903 Flyer back from Britain to America. In 1925 Orville had sent the Flyer to be displayed in the London Science Museum after the Smithsonian Institution refused to support the claim that the Flyer was the first powered airplane.

Orville had inserted in his will the stipulation that the Flyer should remain in London after his death unless he amended the will with a subsequent letter from him indicating a change of heart.

It was known at the time of his death that the Smithsonian had recanted and Orville had agreed to the return of the Flyer. But, Orville’s letter authorizing the transfer could not be found. It was suspected that the letter was in Orville’s files in the possession of Mabel Beck, Orville’s long time, protective secretary. The problem was that she wouldn’t let anyone examine the files.

Deeds became involved to resolve the roadblock. He invited Ms. Beck to his office at the NCR. When Deeds found out that she knew where the letter was in Orville’s office, he sent her in a company car to get it.

The epochal 1903 Flyer became a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian eleven months after Orville’s death in an elaborate ceremony attended by 850 people on

December 17, 1948. The occasion marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the plane’s famous flight.

Friendly Endeavors

The threesome of Deeds, Kettering and Orville were involved in many other activities together. Deeds and Kettering formed the Dayton Engineers Club in 1914, a club of the influential men in Dayton. At its dedication, Orville was second vice-president. Later he became president.

They established a new experimental school advocating the nascent progressive education philosophy. Deeds and Kettering both had sons enrolled in the school as was Orville’s nephew Horace. Kettering provided the school building, renovating a used greenhouse he owned. Orville was on the board of directors.

The three men often had dinner together along with other friends. One night after dinner, one of the attendees wondered whether it was a good idea to lie down after a heavy meal. It was pointed out that it was not a good thing because blood circulation slows down after a nap. Orville who had said nothing up to that point then remarked, “If what you fellows say is true, there must be a lot of sick dogs in this world.”

Edward A. Deeds

Deeds was hired at NCR in 1899 as a young electrical engineer for $30 per week. He had been there for a few days when he told the plant superintendent that there was a loose brick near the top of the company chimney. The superintendent ignored him, so a Sunday, Deeds put on gloves and a wet sponge on his nose and with a camera climbed to the top of the chimney and took a picture of the loose brick.

John H. Patterson, the brilliant and often eccentric founder of NCR, admired his “pluck.” “Pluck” marked Deeds as a rising star in the company and eventually resulted in his becoming chief executive officer and chairman of the board. He died in 1960 at the age of 86.

Charles F. Kettering

John H. Patterson wanted someone to electrify the cash register so that it wasn’t necessary to turn a crank when ringing up a sale. His engineers said it couldn’t be done. A motor small enough to fit inside the register would burn out in a short time.

Kettering, 28, was Ohio State University’s outstanding engineering graduate in 1904 even though he was partially blind. Patterson hired him for $50 per week to do the job, which he did.

He was successful because he realized that a small electric motor was capable of a strong, brief burst of power. It did not need to run continuously.

The first electrified machine was installed at the M.J. Schwab cigar store near Third and Main Streets in downtown Dayton.

A few years he used the same basic idea of the electric motor in the cash register to invent the automobile self-starter, his most famous invention.

Kettering had more than 300 inventions besides the electric cash register and the self-starter during his lifetime. They included the automotive electric ignition system, four-wheel brakes, safety glass and Ethyl gasoline.

He always preached looking ahead. “The only thing certain is change. The past should be a guidepost, not a hitching post.” Kettering died in 1958 at the age of 82.

Personal aside: In high school, I played baseball every summer on diamonds laid out on the old McCook Flying field, now called Kettering Field. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, I worked at Delco, the company that Deeds and Kettering had originated.

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